Some experiences are easily forgettable. Others stick with you. But a rare few mold you. I can still recall walking into the Community Development Law (CDL) Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law for the first time. At UDC Law, the clinical wing of the building is an exclusive area. It’s the cookie jar on top of the kitchen cabinet, out of reach until you’re tall enough to handle the weight. I did not expect to be nervous to start a class in law school.
There is always some apprehension, especially before reading a syllabus for the first time and discovering the mountain of information that you are expected to surmount by the end of the semester. However, clinic at UDC Law was rumored to be a lot of work, which could only be expected for a 7-credit class (and our school requires two of them). Further, with clinic, there are real clients. Beyond the opportunity to apply the knowledge gained from prior law school classes in a real-world context, clinic gave us the important responsibility to listen, hear, and understand client issues. An additional challenge would be balancing clinic with my life as a full-time parent to three children (thankfully my wife would help), a full-time job, and my enrollment in a Property Law class.
In the CDL Clinic, many of our clients are Low-Equity Cooperatives (“LEC”), entities chartered under D.C. law to empower residents to manage a housing cooperative and serve the low-income housing needs of a rapidly gentrifying city. Our clinic has helped several LECs in D.C. take advantage of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (“TOPA”), which provides renters with “a right of first refusal,” or the ability to purchase a property when a landlord offers it for sale before other interested parties can submit a bid. For buildings of more than five units, the residents must form a cooperative association prior to submitting an offer to purchase the building. The Washington Post recently reported important changes to the program. The opportunities presented by TOPA have been magnified by recent waves of gentrification within the city limits, making it increasingly difficult for low-income residents to afford to live in the district. Ongoing efforts to improve opportunities for LECs to navigate D.C.’s real estate market have unfortunately been stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once a housing cooperative has navigated the TOPA process to purchase their apartment building, they usually have a lot of repair work to complete to ensure that the building complies with the D.C. Housing Code. Such repairs require obtaining financing from the city and local banks, identifying and engaging construction companies, and working with a construction project manager or architectural firm to complete the necessary renovations. In some instances, it is necessary to temporarily move residents out of the building to facilitate the repairs.
As one might expect, transitioning from a tenant paying less than $2000 per month for a rental unit to serving as a member of a housing cooperative managing the purchase of a multi-million dollar building, and the associated building renovation that typically ranges upwards of $3 million dollars, requires more than learning a few principles of real estate. Tenants must undergo ongoing education on how to run a business, from learning individual member rights and the responsibilities of board members; to learning how to conduct a board meeting and coordinate board elections; to learning how to review, assess, and execute board resolutions; and a host of other building management issues. Fortunately, there are a few committed community-based nonprofit organizations in D.C. that offer support services to housing cooperatives. UDC’s CDL Clinic plays an important role as legal counsel to the cooperative entity, helping its elected board members coordinate with third-party organizations to resolve various building management issues.
Understandably, some problems can pop up overnight and require immediate solutions. As a student advocate in the CDL Clinic, I have encountered service contract issues, deed questions, lease issues, member payment issues, Uniform Relocation Act questions, lien resolution questions – to name just a few. Additionally, the CDL Clinic has provided me with exposure to a variety of legal practice areas. As a student, I work with my supervising professors to research, analyze, and distill legal insights into culturally competent language for our clients.
Recently, one of our CDL Clinic clients experienced COVID-19 related delays to their building construction project. They are also experiencing related job-losses among their housing cooperative members. These challenges have made the ongoing building redevelopment project a balancing act between the needs of the members, the requirements of the government and private lenders, and the long list of renovation items that the contractor has yet to complete. Their perseverance in the face of adversity is inspiring.
I have also learned a great deal from attending client meetings. It offers a touchstone, a reminder of the people you serve, replacing a voice over the phone or a name on an email. In times of social distancing when we have been forced to rely upon virtual lawyering platforms, I am reminded of the value of physically attending a meeting at a client site. Not only has it been meaningful to be brought to a client’s point of view and meet the people that we are helping, the personal connection has allowed us to offer clients greater assurances during difficult times.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has impacted our lives in unexpected ways. As a law student, I now carry a renewed desire to turn the wheels of justice and better the situation of my fellow citizens in need of legal advocacy. But isn’t that what law school should be about, reminding us to be humble and help? Being a lawyer should do the same. Otherwise, what is the point? We need more lawyers who hear and answer the pro bono call across all practice areas. I have been molded into one who does and won’t be working anywhere that does not make pro bono work a priority.
Erik Swanson is a rising 4L part-time law student at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law. He is an aspiring intellectual property attorney seeking to specialize at the intersection of patents and computers. He works as an IT System Principle Engineer, drawing from a background in technology, security, programming, and automation. When he is not studying law, he is probably fixing something, playing cards or chess with his daughters, replacing automobile parts with his son, or on a lucky day, out on a motorcycle ride.